USC head coach Clay Helton embraces Notre Dame rivalry spotlight

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Clay Helton doesn’t run from a rivalry.

He embraces it. Literally.

At 7:42 p.m. on Saturday, in the 17th night game in Notre Dame Stadium history, No. 11 USC (6-1) will meet No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) for the 89th time. The two sides have sparred annually since 1926, with the only respite being a three-year hiatus from 1943 to 1945 for World War II.

And, same as every year since 1952, they’ll battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh — a foot-long Gaelic war club from Ireland made of oak or blackthorn saplings, bedazzled with ruby-adorned Trojan heads and emerald-studded shamrocks that represent each team’s respective victories.

Of course, Helton — USC’s third-year head coach — already knows this.

This week, he’s making sure his players know it, too.

“For us, it’s special. I kind of sell (the rivalry), to be honest with you,” Helton said on USC’s weekly radio show, “Trojans Live.” “We talk about the trifecta of being able to play for the (Jeweled) Shillelagh and play for the Victory Bell (with UCLA) and play for Rose Bowls.

“It’s in our team meeting room, to be able to put your year up there that you were associated with a victory over Notre Dame or UCLA, or you won the Rose Bowl or the national championship. To be a part of that legacy is important to these guys. It’s one of the reasons why you come to SC, to be part of those storied games.

“So the Shillelagh’s out. I may sleep with it all week. I’m going to show it to the team tomorrow — to those freshmen — so they understand the history of how important this game is to both universities and both fan bases.”

Of course, the game is important — to players, to alums, to fans, to College Football Playoff committee members. It would be important even if both teams weren’t simultaneously ranked for the first time since 2009 (they are). It would be important even if No. 11 USC wasn’t the highest ranked team to play at Notre Dame Stadium in the Brian Kelly Era (it is). It would be important even if this wasn’t being billed as a playoff eliminator wrapped in a rivalry (it is).

And, for a coaching staff, therein lies the dilemma. Do you embrace the rivalry, or downplay it? How much attention is too much? Would an extra spotlight amplify your effort, or add unneeded pressure?

“I think it's important that our players are aware of the game and the circumstances, because that's why they come here,” eighth-year head coach Brian Kelly said. “It's important not to just bury your head in the sand. Be aware of it.

“Having said that, that has no bearing on our preparation. It has no bearing on what we need to do relative to our habits and our traits. But I think that that's why they come to Notre Dame. They want to play in these kind of games.”

In other words: it’s not just another game … but the Irish will prepare as if it is.

Because, in a perfect world, maximum effort is expected no matter the opponent, the stage, the shiny traveling trophy. That’s what Kelly likes to call the “standard of Notre Dame.”

And in that area, plus many others, the programs drastically differ. For Kelly, this week is (mostly) business as usual. More than 2,100 miles west, Helton eagerly sells the rivalry, shining a light on the Jeweled Shillelagh.

Admittedly, he might even sleep with it.

“Any opportunity that you get to be associated with the USC-Notre Dame game, it gives you goosebumps, because you know the history that’s behind it,” said Helton, whose first game as USC’s interim head coach resulted in a 41-31 defeat at Notre Dame in 2015. “You know the legacy that’s behind it and what it means to both fan bases and both universities. It is one of the best rivalries in the history of college football, and to be a part of it in any facet is exciting.

“To have the chance to go back there this time with this team in what has turned out to be a big game for both teams late in the season makes it even more fun.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Southern California coach Clay Helton, center, Ronald Jones II, left, and Viane Talamaivao celebrate the team's 42-24 win against Stanford, as they walk off the field after an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)